How to format a large hard drive with FAT or FAT32

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Windows does not make it easy to format a partition larger than 32 GB with the FAT32 file system.

However, FAT32 supports up to 16TB hard drives, and most operating systems allow up to 2TB. The Windows 32GB restriction is an artificial limit that you can bypass.

We are going to show you how to format large hard drive with FAT / FAT32 or create partition 32GB and above with this file system.

FAT32 FAQ

The File Allocation Table (FAT) file system is a relic of the 1970s. It may be older than most current operating systems, but it is still useful.

FAT vs FAT32 vs exFAT: what’s the difference?

The main difference between FAT, FAT32, and exFAT is in the volume and file size limits.

FAT, the original version of this file system designed for floppy disks, could maintain an 8-bit record of data clusters stored on the disk. With FAT32, this went down to 32 bits. exFAT is the 64-bit version of the FAT file system. With each increase, the maximum volume and file size supported by the file system also increased.

The maximum file size supported by FAT32 is just under 4 GB. If you need a cross-compatible file system that supports larger files, exFAT is the way to go. In fact, with exFAT, the file size limit is slightly less than 16 EB (Exbibyte) or 1.845e + 7TB. Basically, the size of the exFAT file is unlimited.

Why would anyone still want to use FAT32?

People still use FAT32 because it is a universally recognized file system. When you need to transfer files between different operating systems or between your camera or Android phone and your Windows computer, you will probably need a drive in the FAT32 format.

Why has Microsoft limited the size of the FAT partition?

Microsoft has set a 32 GB partition size limit for the FAT / FAT32 file system to promote NTFS, which is generally more efficient when working with large partitions. This limitation only exists in recent versions of Windows. In addition, Windows recognizes large hard drives formatted in FAT / FAT32.

If you don’t want to mess around with the command line for manual formatting, you can use tools that apply the same principle but provide a nice graphical user interface (GUI) for your convenience.

FAT32 format

Format FAT32 dialog box after formatting a 123 GB USB stick with FAT32.

The FAT32 format is a single-task portable GUI tool that does not require installation. Its only job is to format the drives with FAT32, and it does it incredibly well.

FAT32 format works with Windows XP to 10 and supports partition size up to 2TB. You can choose the size of the allocation unit and assign a new volume name to the partition. Unfortunately, it cannot create new partitions.

EaseUS Partition Master

Partition window in EaseUS Partition Master format.

EaseUS Partition Master is a superior alternative to Windows built-in disk management tool. It allows you to manage your partitions and format them to FAT32. Don’t let them trick you into purchasing the paid version until you’ve tried the free version, which is enough for most users.

Right click on the drive you want to format and select Format. In the Format the partition window, add a label, select the desired file system, choose a cluster size, and then press Okay. EaseUS Partition Master can queue multiple operations. When you are ready, click the execute button top right to start.

Fat32Trainer

FAT32Formatter progresses while formatting a drive.

Windows 7 users can also try Fat32Formatter. It’s a self-running tool with a decent GUI that lets you format large hard drives with FAT32. The bubbles guide the user through his functions. No other document is available. While we could get this tool to work in Windows 10, it has been hit and miss.

This tool is almost too simplistic. Although you can delete a partition and create new ones, you cannot choose the size of the allocation unit.

If you want to manage your partitions, i.e. create new ones or change their size, I recommend using dedicated software. First, create a partition that you want to format with FAT32. Then if your partition manager cannot do it, use any of the above tools to perform FAT32 format.

How to format a drive with FAT or FAT32 manually

Warning: Several readers commented that this method failed with a “volume too large for FAT32” error after several hours. To avoid frustration, use a third-party tool or try the quick format option below.

Do you still want to try the manual approach? Rather than using the standard Windows formatting tool, go to the command line.

In Windows 10, right-click the Start button to launch the advanced user menu and select Windows PowerShell (administrator) or Command prompt (administrator). Then enter the following command at the prompt, while “X” is the drive letter of the external device you want to format:

format /FS:FAT32 X:

Hit Enter to execute the command.

Format via Command Prompt

Alternatively, if you don’t want to wait for hours, encounter an error with the above command, or generally want to avoid third-party tools, you can also try the quick format command:

format /FS:FAT32 /Q X:

Note that quick format will only delete the file table. It will not erase or overwrite files currently written to the drive. But if you want to completely erase a hard drive, we’ve shown you how.

Are you having problems? Find out how to fix the “Windows could not complete formatting” error.

FAT formatting a large hard drive

FAT and FAT32 remain popular file systems because they are cross-platform. If you are moving disks between multiple operating systems, you will need a widely supported format.

However, depending on the platforms you are using, you should also consider exFAT as it is supported by Windows, Linux, and newer versions of macOS and has virtually no limit on the size of individual files.

Image Credit: nipastock / Shutterstock


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